Courtesy of the University of Southern Denmark.
Anders Drachen is the new head of the Metaverse Lab at the Faculty of Technical Sciences, where the experienced professor is building a research centre that will unlock new technologies for the future metaverse.
Night Driver was released across game consoles and arcades in 1976, the same year Anders Drachen was born in Denmark. Night Driver was the first driving game to use the first-person perspective, where the game is shown from the viewpoint of the player. At the time, Night Driver was a heavily pixellated affair. Today, the user experience for a gamer is very different, with almost photo-realistic graphics and millions of games being available across a bewildering array of platforms. The games industry has also grown to a global powerhouse with yearly revenues above 200bn US, with individual games costing more to make than major Hollywood productions. Modern games are also increasingly driven by data and artificial intelligence, powering a transformation of how games are made and experienced. Today, games form the nucleus of the nascent metaverse, and the future of entertainment is being prototyped in research labs all over the world.
Anders Drachen, newly-appointed head of the Metaverse Lab at the Faculty of Technical Sciences, is deeply familiar with the incredible evolution of the games industry: ”Just during the past two decades, games have changed dramatically. From a niche industry, games have grown to touch the lives of billions daily, and the playing of video games has become an integral part of our life and society, for everyone irrespective of age or culture.”
It is not just the scale of the games industry that has evolved: games have diversified, and today range from pixel-based games reminiscent of the arcade experiences of the 70s, all the way to global multiverses that see over one hundred million players interacting in the same games. At the same time, games have spread from the arcade hall and consoles to mobile phones and virtual reality. Game universes now offer multiple ways to interact with them and form the first steps in what is rapidly being identified as the ”metaverse”: the next iteration of the Internet.
”The Creative Industries has to be the most exciting sector to work in,” Drachen notes and continues: ”It is the place for companies to go to try out new technologies. We see this across VR to machine learning to 5G to blockchain: if you want to try out something new, you do it in or with games.”
Introducing the metaverse
The concept of the metaverse has been around for decades but recently gained new attention when Facebook rebranded itself as Meta. However, exactly what the metaverse is, remains hotly contested, as Anders Drachen highlights: ”The visions of the metaverse are many and varied. I use the term ’metaverse’ in the broadest possible sense because this is what makes sense for a concept we are still trying to get a grasp on. The metaverse right now is somewhat focused on video games, but this is a limited perspective. More broadly, we are talking about the next iteration of applications built on top of a spatio-temporal Internet.” But while Facebook’s name change has gained the attention of media, the metaverse – or more specifically a version of it – has quietly been emerging in video games over the past two decades.
Today, semi-permanent virtual worlds see millions interacting online, and such games have layers of experiences built around them as well, forming a hub for entertainment, socialization, learning, physical experiences and more for billions of people. Under the hood, games are emerging that see machine learning algorithms learning about the behaviour of the players to adapt games to the individual gamer, striving to provide the best possible user experience. At the same time, computer-controlled opponents are controlled by increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence, providing the right level of challenge at the right time. In under a decade, games have become a hotbed for artificial intelligence research, as exemplified by the work of companies such as OpenAI on esports (games played competitively). These ideas are also spreading outside games:
”There are a lot of ideas in digital entertainment which connect with areas such as learning, health and civic engagement,” professor Drachen explains: ”We are already seeing games being used in areas not traditionally associated with games, such as health applications. This will only increase in the future. For example, recent innovations allow us to transform the traditional one-size-fits-all sports broadcasting model into an adaptive experience, where your individual preferences determine what camera angles are used, which stats are shown, and how matches are commented on, creating a much more personalised experience. This is exemplified in competitive gaming, where such systems also help to make the in-game action interpretable for novice viewers.”
When it comes to the future metaverse, there are plenty of visions – from augmented reality glasses, virtual reality universes, virtual concerts and life-like artificial intelligence entities. But we are not there yet: ”The ideas we see being worked with now are amazing. For example, the idea that we can engage with games or applications on one platform, and seamlessly move to other platforms, taking our virtual avatars with us across universes. However, there are a plethora of technical and design challenges – and ethical challenges – that we need to solve before we can realize those visions. At the heart of these are data, algorithms, engineering, user experience and learning,” professor Drachen acknowledges.
A new translational research capacity
Backed by an international network, the Metaverse Lab aims to address these challenges together with the Creative Industries. Technical innovation is a key strength at the Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller Institute of the University of Southern Denmark, which brought in the internationally recognized and multiple-award-winning professor, regarded as the grandfather of game data science, to lead the effort towards expanding research across games and engagement. The ambition is clear: ”In the span of my professional career, the Creative Industries has gone from hardly using data at all to having data and analytics as an entrenched component of informing design, development and live operations, whether for entertainment, education, health or cybersecurity. The economy of the games sector today rests on the use of data. We want to become a leader in translational research on the technologies and experiences that will underpin the future of the metaverse. We are here to drive technical knowledge about games forward, and to provide deep expertise to our partners in the Creative Industries. We aim to help realise the visions, to maximize the societal benefit of digital entertainment, and by extension learning, health and other areas.”
Anders Drachen has experience building exactly the kind of cross-disciplinary, agile research environment that is needed to carry out that vision. He joins the Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller Institute from the University of York, where he spent five years as part of the leadership that established the largest games research environment in the world with more than 150 commercial partners. Focusing on game data science, user research and design, he has worked with AAA game titles and a who’s who list of game companies, helping to transform the use of data in the sector. He has authored three books on these topics which have become standard works of reference with hundreds of thousands of readers. Along the way, he attracted more than a quarter-billion DKK in research funding, helping to establish research programs that combine deep academic expertise with industry capacity to generate large scale impact. One example is Weavr, the largest esports-focused research endeavour in the world which saw companies and universities work together to develop a dozen data-driven audience experiences that have been used and viewed by almost 30 million people worldwide.
He is excited about joining the Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller Institute: ”The Maersk Institute punches far above its weight class. My colleagues here have built a world-leading engineering research ecosystem which is uniquely able to leverage cross-disciplinary expertise. Here, there is an opportunity to evolve a capacity focused on games in all their forms – across entertainment, learning, health, manufacturing and beyond, resting on the onsite experience base that exists here for translational research. All elements are in place here at SDU – technical engineering, design, business, augmented and virtual reality capacity, AI and data science – we are in a unique position to support the Danish and international games industry.”
Backing a great research programme is the need for great students. The right building blocks are already in place thanks to the programme in Game Development and Learning Technologies [LINK – https://www.sdu.dk/en/uddannelse/bachelor/spiludvikling-laeringsteknologi%5D, and formed one of the key attractions for Anders Drachen: ”My colleagues at the Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller Institute have – completely under the radar! – built the most solid programme in technical game development in Europe. Our students have deep technical software engineering expertise combined with an understanding of the context in that games and other information systems are used– they know how to make the user and the game connect, and how to foster engagement. This not just in entertainment games but across robotics, learning, health and more, giving them an incredible range of expertise and ability to dive into all facets of the Creative Industries.”
These students, and the potential they provide for the capacity and growth of the Metaverse Lab, form an important part of professor Drachen’s ambitious plans to make the Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller Institute a hub for translational research for the Creative Industries.
The Metaverse Lab is part of the Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller Institute, known worldwide for its robotics and engineering research.
Professor Anders Drachen is the new head of the Game Development and Learning Technologies of the
Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller Institute, and heads up the SDU Metaverse Lab.
The 45-year old professor returns to Denmark after a career spanning five continents, the latest as professor and communications director at the University of York in the United Kingdom, where he was integral to creating the largest academic research environment in the world on games, with over 150 industrial partners. With more than 250m DKK in funding from public and commercial sources, he has helped shape some of the largest initiatives in games research, including the Digital Creativity Labs at the University of York and the IGGI PhD programme, the largest of its kind in the world with more than 100 PhD students all focusing on games research.
Drachen is internationally recognized for his expertise in computer games, not the least game data science and games user research, and has won multiple awards for his research. He has authored three books on these topics which have become standard works of reference with hundreds of thousands of readers, as well as more than 170 research articles and even more technical reports on these topics.
In his spare time, he writes children’s books about technology and economics. He has also published a book and numerous articles on his passion for frozen desserts. As a scientific diver with experience from all over the world, he has had the dubious pleasure of being the subject of the affections of sharks on several occasions.